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Doctors Take Different Stances on Biodefense Lab in Butner

Posted December 25, 2007
Updated December 26, 2007

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— Doctors have divided views on a proposed biodefense lab in Butner.

Some say it could lead to the biggest public health disaster in the state's history, while others say it will help fight diseases that do not yet have a cure.

The Umstead Research Farm area is one site among five where Congress is considering placing the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. Scientists would study diseases like nipah and hendra.

Dr. Joseph Melamed, with Wake Radiology, said the stakes are too high to place a scientific facility dealing with potent viruses in such an populated area. Thirty-three other doctors have signed a petition against the biodefense lab that Melamed started circulating two weeks ago.

"If any of these diseases were to escape this facility, it could lead to a devastating public health disaster," Melamed said.

"These facilities do not belong in high population areas," he added. "They certainly don't belong in a watershed for a 50-mile radius with a population of 2 million people."

The biodefense lab would be more like the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, where scientists study potentially deadly diseases in a secure setting, than a high risk to spread disease, Dr. Barrett Slenning, a veterinarian at North Carolina State University, argued.

The lab would be run through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Although the lab would be near the watershed for Falls Lake, Raleigh's primary water source, Slenning said there would be no danger of diseases getting out of the facility.

"These facilities are designed knowing that people will make mistakes," Slenning said. "If they make a mistake, it gets caught by the first backup. If they make another mistake, it gets caught by the second backup."

Melamed contended that putting the facility handling Ebola and anthrax viruses in Butner would be plain reckless.

"If you contract any of these diseases, there's no need for you to go to the hospital, to Duke or UNC or any of the tertiary care medical centers," Melamed said. "There's nothing we can do for you."

Slenning argued that the possible benefits of the biodefense lab outweigh any hypothetical risks.

"Having the facilities, the diagnostics near us is what will make or break the difference if we ever get any kind of outbreak," Slenning said.

Congress was also considering sites in Texas, Kansas, Mississippi and Georgia and was not expected to make a decision until fall 2008.


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  • jon2four Dec 26, 2007

    Remember the super conducting super collider,I've always wondered whether if that had been presented right from a media point of view,if we as a nation would be further along the path of energy independance. Again we see the same media incompentence, questionable reporting presented as true facts and a public not knowledgable enough to know the difference. That is what scares the H*E*L*L out of me.

  • Harry Canyon Dec 26, 2007

    Maybe by some crazy scenario a virus could be released. Is that any worse than the nuclear power plant nearby? Life has it's risks if you don't want any risks then live in a bubble. Like other posters have said,if it's done in Atlanta than why not here?

  • charlesboyer Dec 26, 2007

    Superb comments, Steve, as usual.

    I view this so-called "story" as mostly fear-mongering sensationlism designed to take advantage of the public's general lack of scientific knowledge. Sensationalism=ratings and ratings=$$$.

    As Steve points out, the pathogens that would be studied are either highly treatable or highly self-limiting.

    One thing that this report is leaving out in regards to Ebola is this: "The Ebola virus is transmitted by direct contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected persons." That's according to the WHO, a quite reputable source. So, again, please explain concerns about the water supply. It cannot be transmitted by air, does not survice in water and in fact requires intimate contact where bodily fluids are exchanged.

  • rlewis Dec 26, 2007

    I just get a bad feeling about this. When I see words like "biodefense", etc getting thrown around, I'm reminded of Stephen King's book The Stand.

    Sure that story is bigtime fiction but let's be honest here. Even with all of these supposed "safety precautions", there would still be the *potential* for something very bad to happen at a facility such as this. And that being the case, why wouldn't the government want to build this place out in Nevada, or someplace as remote?

    And the fact that some people could possibly find employment at such a facility doesn't do anything for me either. A lot of people *could* find employment at a landfill.. doesn't mean I should want one in my backyard.

  • seankelly15 Dec 26, 2007

    I would have preferred an interview with an expert in infectious diseases instead of an interview with a radiologist.

  • godukebasketball Dec 26, 2007

    There is already a lab in the area that is Biosafetly Level 3 (BSL-3). To operate, they have high security, major protocols for safety, special construction of the building to prevent these viruses and bacteria from getting out (air flow and filtration, water intake and outtake, etc), and the lab personnel, if they follow the proper protocol as they are required, are safe.

    The type of bacteria and viruses that are in a BSL-3 lab could be anthrax, smallpox, TB, SARS, etc. If this facility in Butner is going to have Ebola, it would be a BSL-4 level lab which would take even greater precautions for the safety of the environment, the surrounding population, and the employees. If the CDC is operating as a BSL-4 in Atlanta with that population size, then I don't have a problem with a similar lab being in Butner.

  • blessalah Dec 26, 2007

    Actually, there are alot of people here that could use this facility for work. There are quite a few biotech students I know that are wasting their degrees and I'm sure this would pay at least a little better.

    As far as the whole "scare tactic" thing. WRAL is known to follow suit in line with all of our other media outlets in the US. Just goes to show that this is becoming a widespread problem in the US. I don't rely only our reporting here and thanks to the internet, I have access to outside, more credible, reporting sources.

  • Panther Dec 26, 2007

    You have been reading too many conspiracy theories books. If you work for the government everyone knows that they have great medical coverage. Think of it this way, If the CDC in Atlanta can handle the world’s deadliest virus, bacteria, and God knows what else, why not here? On second thought who cares about Atlanta anyway. Relax and have another cup of coffee this morning.

  • Xscout577 Dec 26, 2007

    No offense to the "Analytical Minds" posting here, but who cares whether Anthrax is a virus or a bacterium. The point is that we DO NOT need a Facility like that near a population concentration of over 2 million people.
    And achilles7ls ... contrary to popular belief, money ISN'T everything. Working in a Facility like the on being proposed wounldn't be worth the Government paycheck you'd make if you screwed up & contracted Ebola or "God knows whatever else" they'd have in that place. Having being been in the Military and knowing how they don't exactly tell you everything, the very thought of having a Biodefense Lab close by, to put it bluntly, scares the H*E*L*L out of me.

  • Steve Crisp Dec 26, 2007

    Oh...and anthrax isn't a virus. It's a bacterium.